Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flight of Dragons Ages Well

Animated kids' movies are like pizza: the best are the ones that age well. In the case of a 'pie, if it's as good or better when eaten cold the next day, you know you've got a thing of beauty. If a film's enjoyable in a decade or two once you've grown up (or at least aged, if not grown up at heart), then it's a keeper.

The Flight of Dragons falls into this category - as a thing of quality, that is, not something dripping with cheese.

Originally produced by Rankin/Bass in 1982 and aired on TV instead of in movie theatres, the story is based very loosely on Gordon R. Dickson's 1976 novel The Dragon and the George, about a 20th Century man who's magically transported to the past and has to embark with a group of companions on a quest against evil, while also having to deal with the fact that he's accidentally been put into the body of a dragon. The film's title, opening credits, and even some lines of dialogue (not to mention the main character's name) give more status though to Peter Dickenson's non-fiction book The Flight of Dragons, which endeavoured to describe how dragons would have been able to have their extraordinary abilities if they'd actually existed. But really, as far as Dickenson's contribution goes, the inner workings of dragons are summed up in about 5 minutes or so in a scene or two, while the story itself, though significantly altered, owes far more to GRD.

As a kid, all it took was the word "dragon" in the title (dragons were - and still are - my favourite critters) and the promise of adventure and this flick had me. And it didn't disappoint. There were dragons aplenty, knights, wizards, ogres, princesses and a desperate struggle to save the world and find a way for magic to co-exist with the growing reality of logic and science.

But as good as it was, over the years, The Flight of Dragons was shown less frequently. By the 90's, it was as good as gone. Sure, some channels would occasionally run older animated features like The Last Unicorn, but it was as though TFOD had faded into its realm of magic and had been forgotten.

Every now and again it came up in discussions with friends when we reminisced about our childhood favourites. But since there was never any sign of it on the videotape and later DVD shelves in entertainment stores, it was never something I gave much thought. Not too long ago though, I found a few minutes of footage on Youtube, and my interest was rekindled. I was pleased to find it on Amazon and got a copy on DVD last week.

And I have to say, as an adult, I think TFOD is still pretty entertaining.

Admittedly, it's not perfect. Some of the dialogue is a little corny at times (especially what was written for the late John Ritter as the voice of the protagonist, Peter), and there's a bit in the beginning where a gaggle of asshole millers has a whole assortment of different accents. The animation may be primitive by today's standards, but it was pretty good for '82 and is still good enough in my books. And there's the difficulty with the plot around the character of Aragh the wolf. Aragh begins his part of the movie dead, made into some sort of revenant by a good wizard to save the heroes from a hoard of monsters that no living creature can withstand. In exchange for his good deed, the wizard restores life to Aragh. But there are still many lethal challenges facing the heroes, begging the question: wouldn't it have been smarter to leave the wolf undead until all the evil badguys in their path were defeated and victory had been achieved? Isn't an undead wolf a far more powerful weapon against ogres and giant worms and evil wizards than a live one? It's the sort of question people ask about The Lord of the Rings and any other story where the dead rise to fight for good. Aren't they the ultimate weapon, since they're already dead? And if so, why would you stop using them after one engagement? With Aragh, there's no formal explanation, although I always got the feeling it was something of a fair bargain issue: a life for a life. It's also a little unsettling in the beginning when the good "green" wizard Carolinus is extolling magic's ability to inspire man to do better, greater things, and in his example lists dragon's hide as prompting the development of weapons of war like armour and tanks. Not so "good" results of influence by magic.

Regardless, there's a lot about The Flight of Dragons that works. It's a straight-forward quest story that's well put together and is consistently logical (pun intended, given the story's theme of logic versus magic) within the world it creates. There are plenty of good fight sequences like the rollicking aside when Sir Orrin Neville Smythe recounts his previous battle with the evil dragon Bryagh, or when Peter and his dragon mentor, old Smrgol, face off against the ogre of Gormley Keep. Along the way it also serves-up plenty of humour, with scenes where the dragons shake-down dwarves for jewels, or where they get drunk in the vaults beneath an inn.

It's a fairly smart movie as well, with the afore-mentioned explanations (as the man Peter is getting used to being in the body of the young dragon Gorbash) of how dragons breathe fire, why they covet gold, and how a creature that large can fly. And Carolinus' statement about evil being a natural part of the world was a good way of not only introducing the red wizard, Ommadon, but also of explaining why the green wizard and their other brothers had to initially try to include him in their plan to create a magical haven, thus accounting for how the enemy found out about it and why he wanted to stop it. Further, the realizations of Carolinus and the wizards Solarius and Lo Tae Zhao that their magic is failing, and the plot device of having the forces of antiquity "forbidding the four magic brothers from warring on one-another" (introduced after the wizards' failed meeting) neatly explains why the quest of Peter and his friends is necessary in the first place, and why the three good wizards can't just get it over with and gang up on Ommadon to end things quickly. Then there's Peter's battle with Ommadon at the end. It might have been sufficient to take the piss out of the bad guy by having Peter simply state that he was a man of science and that he denied magic. But the writers take things a step further, and while the red wizard mumbles incantations and attempts to summon a roster of foul creatures, Peter counters by rattling-off physics and mathematical equations and a litany of branches of scientific study, thereby making the scene far more powerful and driving home the point that science is just as broad and all-encompassing as magic, but also that it's logical and can be learned by anyone and doesn't require powers other than intelligence and curiosity. And I was impressed by a small, clever addition in the scene where Peter and Sir Orrin try to withstand the insanity-inducing noise of the sandmirks by singing: instead of making something up, the writers draw from real Middle English poetry and have the knight sing "The Cuckoo Song", which subtly reinforces that this adventure is supposed to be taking place sometime around the 10th Century (as Carolinus mentions near the beginning).

There are plenty of enjoyable characters too. They're all the better because the writers ensure that they're consistent with who and what they are. The dragons, even the good ones, still behave like dragons and have no qualms about bullying dwarves into giving up their jewels, steal cattle from innocent farmers, or deciding to burn down mills and potentially kill the millers if they cross the dragons' friends. It adds realism to them that makes them three-dimensional characters. Of all the characters, old Smrgol the dragon has always been my favourite. He's good-natured, if a bit prickly at times and is the mentor who has to teach Peter how to be a dragon and guide him through most of the journey to Ommadon's realm. I'll freely admit that I still get a little choked-up when Smrgol dies along the way. Sir Orrin the knight is another well-rounded character. Sure, he's the knight in shining armor, but he's not as young as he used to be. He's a brave warrior who's a force to be reckoned with in a fight, but he also boasts and when he's drunk he gets alternately maudlin and loud and combative. And, of course, we can't forget the bad guy: Ommadon. James Earl Jones does a terrific job with the voiceover for the red wizard, making him alternately lowly menacing and loudly maniacal in a way that's just close to over-the-top, but not beyond it, to be sometimes more frightening than his performances as Darth Vader and Thulsa Doom. It's also a credit to the film's writers that there's diversity among the characters. Not merely in the simple way of having dragons, elves and animals among the heroes. But more importantly, ensuring that the "good guys" aren't all white men. While Princess Melisande doesn't really play much of an active role in the quest, the band of heroes does include a woman, Danielle of the Woodlands, an unmatched archer who knows how to put a gang of elves in their place and is quite prepared to face-down a raging dragon. As for the three good magic brothers (I'm not sure we can count Ommadon in a diversity poll because he's so obviously not human), while Cornelius is white, Solarius is black, and Lo Tae Zhao is Asian.

What's also very important about The Flight of Dragons is that the writers don't pull any punches. This is a quest to save the world from evil, a serious struggle that means life-and-death, and doesn't just give lip-service to the term. People/characters die in this movie. That wasn't quite so much of a big deal back in '82 because filmmakers, even those producing movies aimed at child audiences (including Disney), recognized that for a story to have weight and meaning, there had to be consequences, and that meant that if there was real danger then not every character (and not just the bad guys, but the good guys too) would survive. Nowadays though, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a children's movie where one of the heroes is killed. Even the death of bystanders is unusual. But death is a very real fact in TFOD. As mentioned before, Aragh the wolf starts the adventure dead. An innocent bystander, the innkeeper, is killed when the ogre of Gormley Keep attacks a tavern in the night. Old Smrgol dies fighting the ogre - and killing it. And when Ommadon unleashes his terrible dragon Bryagh to deal with the heroes, the carnage is near-total: Danielle, the elf, and Aragh are all killed in fairly short order. Sir Orrin is critically injured and manages to kill Bryagh before he also dies. Only Peter survives. Granted, Danielle, the elf, Aragh and Sir Orrin are all revived when Peter defeats Ommadon and the magic realm is created, but that doesn't change the fact that the audience has had to watch them be killed. And, even though everyone else comes back, Smrgol remains dead. As well, there's a price for Peter's victory. In denying magic to beat Ommadon, he has severed himself from the magic realm and must return to the future, never to see his friends again (with the exception of Princess Melisande, who, having fallen in love with Peter, journeys to the future to be with him). And, of course, there's the realization for the audience that even though Ommadon was defeated, much of the destruction he was hoping to accomplish and the terrible inventions that he wanted to inspire happened anyway.

Bearing all of this in mind, one has to ask is The Flight of Dragons a movie for children? Yes, in that it's a good, entertaining story that doesn't talk down to them, but shows them that there are consequences for decisions and actions, and also that there's a high value to bravery, friendship, love and hope, and that even in a world that's necessarily of science, we can create a little magic sometimes. But it's also a movie that has the smarts to work for adults. And so it's my hope that The Flight of Dragons may experience a bit of a revival in the future and regain an audience that will appreciate it as a soaring feat of imagination.

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